Ophthalmologists call for more robust regulations for the sale of laser pointers

New study shows that children with learning or behavioral difficulties may be susceptible to self-inflicted eye damage from laser pointers

Heidelberg | New York, 17 December 2018 

New Content Item (1) © Springer NatureShining a laser pointer into a person’s eye can permanently damage the retina. A new study in the journal Eye now shows that children with learning or behavioral difficulties maybe susceptible to self-inflicted retinal burns from laser pointers. The study, led by Simon Kelly of Bolton NHS Foundation Trust, suggests that tighter controls on purchasing such lasers, particularly on the internet, could help prevent eye damage in vulnerable children. Eye is the official journal of The Royal College of Ophthalmologists and is published by Springer Nature. 

In this study, the research team undertook a literature review of previous cases of self-inflicted retinal burns due to laser pointers reported globally. The researchers then carried out a survey of UK ophtalmologists and a clinical follow-up of four children with self-inflicted laser burns. 

The literature review and the survey of UK ophthalmologists showed that 85 per cent of reported cases of eye damage due to laser pointers are male, and 80 per cent of all patients are under 20 years of age. Of the four individual cases assessed locally, in Bolton, Bristol and Preston three children had learning difficulties or behavioral problems.

“Children are at greater risk of such injuries than adults because they are intrigued by the appearance of the laser devices. They also tend not to blink or avert their gaze as readily as adults do, and the outer layer of children’s eyes is also clear, which provides little protection from laser injury,” explains co-author of the study Fahd Quhill. 

The researchers admit that the diagnosis of laser pointer retinal injuries in childhood can be difficult because children and parents may be hesitant to admit that they have used or bought such devices. Additionally, laser-induced retinal injuries often look similar to other retinal disorders. This might lead to misdiagnosis, delayed diagnosis and unnecessary investigations or treatment.

“Ophthalmologists should closely question all patients and especially children with retinal outer layer defects for any history of laser pointer exposure before considering further tests for macular disorders,” explains Quhill. 

The authors further note that children likely to self-harm may be at even greater risk of shining a laser beam into their eyes, perhaps for longer periods of time. This includes those with mental health, behavioral or learning difficulties.

“The public may falsely assume that these ‘toys’ are safe as they are approved for general sale,” says Kelly. “Regulators, manufacturers and distributors of laser pointers - including online merchants – should be more vigilant given our concern of vision loss in at risk children. Manufacturers often do not adequately label the strength of their devices or warn against the possible harm they can inflict when not used for their intended purposes.”

Reference: Linton, E. et al (2018). Retinal burns from laser pointers, a risk in children with behavioural problems, Eye DOI: 10.1038/s41433-018-0276-z

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